Every sports fan has favorite players they loved to watch growing up. For the athletes who actually make it to the big leagues, especially in baseball, sometimes those favorite players helped shape the way they emulate their own skills on the field.
For Colorado Rockies rookie Pat Valaika, those players were primarily Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter, with a little bit of Sammy Sosa thrown in the mix.
Valaika—a utility player who plays in the four, five and six positions inside the diamond—was called up to the Rockies from Albuquerque early in September. But because those three positions were pretty regularly guarded by the likes of DJ LeMahieu, Cristhian Adames, Daniel Descalso—after the injured departure of Trevor Story—and Nolan Arenado, the 24-year-old didn't see much playing time.
When it came to the baseball heroes he watched growing up, as an aspiring major leaguer himself, Valaika said he stuck to the shortstops.
"They're both just captains," Valaika said. "I mean, he's Jeter. He was making incredible plays and the amount of effort he played with, it was very intense on and off the field. Garciaparra was quirky. He had all the batting glove things, so when he came to L.A. for a little bit, I got to watch him. That was cool."
Valaika said that, without a doubt, he tried to formulate his own game after that of his two idols growing up. But doing that is nothing out of the ordinary, in his opinion.
"I mean I think everyone did," Valaika said. "You know, growing up in practice, you get a ball in the six hole, you want to do the Jeter jump throw. It's iconic."
It's not necessarily just the athleticism of these pro athletes that resonates with impressionable child athletes, like Valaika once was.
"There are certain things that of course, everyone emulates, but I think most of all, you just try to emulate more of their character and how they played the game. I think that's what impressed me about them."
Although Valaika never got the chance to meet Jeter, he did have a minor run-in with Garciaparra.
"I got to meet Nomar in college. I think he was announcing one of the games. He was at the field, so I got to meet him, which was cool," Valaika said. "I had just gotten drafted, so it was a nice lead in. He congratulated me and so it was cool talking to him."
Valaika admits that he was never "big on autographs," but despite his aversion to the John Hancocks, he did get one from a star.
"I think the best one I ever got was Sammy Sosa. He signed my hat one time," Valaika said. "My dad took me out to spring training, so that was my claim to fame. I got Sammy Sosa's autograph."
Now, he has a different claim to fame.
Though Valaika made only 19 trips to the plate with the Rockies during his brief cup of coffee, he made the best of it with three runs scored, five hits, a homer and two RBI.
No matter where the rest of his career may take him—whether he stays in the big leagues next year or has to work his way back up again—one thing is certain: Valaika wouldn't be where he is today without the inspiration of some of his childhood heroes, who influenced him to follow in their footsteps.
Valaika in the AFL
Valaika, the only one of the seven Rockies representatives in the Arizona Fall League who has reached the majors, has just five hits in 20 at-bats through five games for the Salt River Rafters but has exhibited one of the best approaches of any player in the circuit, per Fangraphs' Eric Longenhagen.